Even Hummingbirds Sit
As I sat in my study recently, staring out the window, hard at not-working, a black-chinned hummingbird appeared hovering over the Turk’s Cap outside. She is a frequent visitor and I have watched her, as well as her more decorative mate, drain the nectar from each blossom on the huge bush. On this day, she came directly to the window, hovering and looking inside with what seemed, from my guilt-ridden perspective, a reproach to my unproductive state. After a few seconds, she zipped off, back to her work, with a metabolism I envy. Oh, to always be as energetic and productive as that hummingbird: the perfect example of adequate production and a representative of the work ethic that hovers over my own academic consciousness, always demanding evidence of time “well spent,” particularly in these envied days of summer. I have, however, seen that same bird sit down, stop, and rest in the branches of the trees for five minutes or more, an eternity in hummingbird time.
In the midsummer heat, my productivity has slowed to a languid crawl -- despite my best intentions for the steady energetic pace I foresaw in my desire to maximize the luxury of time summer hours provide. Like many academics, I start my summer with elevated production goals, because I teach less. Time expands, and seems to slow enough for savoring ideas, developing new projects, or moving forward steadily to complete others. The hope of May and June buoys me, and then, suddenly, it’s the end of July. Little doubts creep in as the End Time looms and I think of what I have yet to accomplish with July whipping by, tumbling into August and soon, the start of the academic year.
It does not help that my summer course in American literature has just completed Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, with his schedule of daily work a remonstrance against sloth and his daily query of “what good have I done?” Perhaps to compensate for my own languor with my written work, I find myself filling time in the classroom, asking more questions, answering them as quickly, filling the silence with my own talk until that moment when I experience an out-of-body observation and see myself yammering on, working to be “teaching” -- doing what appears to be the work of education and filling the hour. In the classroom, I can be that hummingbird of productivity, buzzing through the daily syllabus, checking off the accomplishment of each reading with vigor. And yet, the voice inside my head says “you’re just talking.” And I know I need to slow down, to add my silence to the classroom in order to do the other required work of teaching: encourage the practice of thinking. I need to let my hummingbird sit.
Of course, what I need to do in the classroom is also what I need to do at my desk, allow time for thinking. Though I may wail my productivity woes, I am forgetting what’s required to create, finding the ideas out of which something might actually be produced.
In his work, Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that the creative process involves five steps: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. He also notes that this is not a simple linear process, but a recursive one in which a person cycles through the steps at variable rates: “incubation may last for years; sometimes it takes a few hours. Sometimes the creative idea includes one deep insight, and innumerable small ones.” What a relief!
The focus on the end product, evidenced by print or, at minimum, a fully formed draft, or added lines to a CV, can be overwhelming to the more delicate stage of incubation and insight. In my own work, I often find myself more concerned about completing a project than the actual doing of the work. In the classroom, I reward the quick responder, the student with the ready observation or answer, validating the idea that speed and the end product (the answer) may be more important than the slower processes of incubation and insight. This attitude compounds my own writing anxieties, as I reinforce the need for speed. By filling class time with talk, I disallow silence to work for myself and my students.
Ironically, in my writing classes, I work to establish the time for incubating ideas by requiring students’ to write numerous drafts. But the literature classroom challenges me to again develop my students as thinkers and allow for time to create the insight required to develop new knowledge and understanding. The parallels between how my classroom functions and how I function at my desk are striking, and equally striking is how I regularly ignore the practices I strive to develop in my students when I sit down at my own work. While I can make my classroom look more productive by filling the time with my own talk, we are no closer to developing real insight at the end of the day. Without the quiet time of incubation, whatever I produce in writing may fail to create anything worth elaborating.
So, how to slow down? How to focus not only on product but on the other significant stages of the creative process? In the classroom, I work to allow more silence. What we dread as professors can become a powerful tool in creating thinking students. Instead of rewarding only the quick thinkers, allowing silence creates the opportunity for the students who prefer to mull over their ideas before sharing them. By establishing the practice of waiting, I also keep students from relying too heavily on one student to carry the whole class through the semester. By waiting regularly, students engage in the practice of thinking. As my classroom slows, more students become involved, they generate more answers and ideas from their own minds, instead of relying on my own chattering to fill the time we have together.
To recognize the need for incubation and insight in my classroom necessitates my own recognition for the same requirement for my own work. While it’s easy to divide what I teach from what I practice myself, I only suffer when I ignore the good advice I’ve given my own students, or fail to practice what I tell them will work “for them”. Though I may be more experienced at thinking, the requirements are no different.
I too must allow time for the incubation of my ideas. I must respect the necessity of idle time within my own creative process. Though this new pattern challenges my concept of productivity, and the prevailing attitudes toward scholarly success, I acknowledge that my idleness is not a break between producing the more tangible evidence of “work”, or a sign of laziness, but is instead a requirement for producing creative work. My own process suits me far better than any externally imposed concept of production and ultimately leads to an increased yield because I spend more time working effectively, and less time worrying about what I have not yet produced.
Now when my hummingbirds arrive, I watch them hover in the scarlet blooms, and ignore their speed and efficiency. Instead, I see how often they sit, quietly, their labors waiting, their motion stilled before they dive. I watch them at this different work, with me at my own, staring out the windows, idle before the feast.
Amy L. Wink has taught writing and literature at several universities. She is the author of She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of 19th Century (University of Tennessee Press). She is currently an adjunct professor at Austin Community College. She is also the managing editor of Austin State of Mind.